Babes With Blades: The Flower of Sarnia

starstarstar
“Not QUITE what the cover would suggest…”

I’m unsure who the woman is on the DVD sleeve. I can only presume it’s Lady Not-Appearing-In-This-Film. For what we have instead seems to be a real labour of love for British stunt-woman Cecily Fay. Though calling her a mere stunt-woman would be selling her short: she also wrote, directed, starred in, edited and scored this feature, plus did the fight choreography and sound re-recording, while sewing every sequin on the costumes herself. Okay, the last might be a bit of a stretch, but since she is also credited as the costume designer… perhaps not. Hell, even Robert Rodriguez doesn’t have such a large collection of hats, and this overwhelming multi-tasking might help explain why it took close to five years between the start of filming and its eventual release. The main problem is that Fay’s talents, while considerable, are not equally spread.

The issues are particularly apparent in the writing and editing departments. The first is kinda forgivable, and hardly a rarity in low-budget cinema, But I still find myself always hoping for something better – in this case, than an ill-considered mash-up of Star Wars and Gladiator. Azura (Fay) is the last survivor of her planet, Sarnia. She has been captured by Section Commander Sorrentine (Simpson), the ruthless dictator responsible for wiping out Azura’s people, and is made to fight for the amusement of the masses. While Azura plots her vengeance, a small rebellion (very small – like, it has four people in it, tops…) is brewing under the leadership of Viridian (Burniston), and is preparing a devastating strike against the Empire.

The whole SF angle is just now very well thought-out. These people have interplanetary travel, yet haven’t made a gun that takes less than five seconds to reload? I know every non-historical martial arts film has to handle it somehow, but this is close to the feeblest excuse I’ve heard. Given how little the future has to do with the rest of the plot, Fay would have been better off abandoning it entirely, making Sarnia an island instead of a planet, and setting it in the past to wipe out the firearm issue entirely. But worse, still, is the editing. You’d think Fay would know how to assemble an action sequence. Apparently not, for the movie adopts the Moulinex approach of choppy editing, which makes it so much harder to appreciate the skills of the fighters. There is one scene – here’s a GIF taken from it, to give you some idea – which is awesome (even if rather cribbed from Kill Bill), simply because Fay the director steps back and lets Fay the stunt-woman do her thing. It’s just a shame the rest wasn’t shot similarly.

More positively, we have Fay’s acting and directorial talents. The former isn’t much of a surprise, as I enjoyed her performance in Warrioress, and she brings the same sense of conviction to proceedings as the heroine here. You may not believe any number of things about this world, but you can always believe Fay could be the last survivor of her species. The rest of the performances are.. a bit of a mixed bag, shall we say. Some appear to have strayed in from a fashion show at a steampunk convention, but punk veteran John Robb is clearly enjoying himself enormously as the arena MC [I got a vaguely Michael Rooker vibe off him!] 

Given this was also Fay’s directorial debut, it’s acceptably solid. She avoids the obvious pitfalls, and if more functional than stylish, she has clearly been a) around enough TV/film sets, and b) paying attention on them, to handle things. I’ve seen far worse efforts from people with far longer IMDb resumes to their names. However, the bottom line is that you will still need a solid tolerance for low-budget cinema, and all that entails, for this to be acceptable viewing, though accepting its status as an obvious passion project will help mitigate the flaws. And this may be unprecedented, but I almost wish they’d gone for a less gratuitous title and sleeve; they both suggest something I should probably save for when Chris is out of the house, when the reality is considerably more restrained.

Dir: Cecily Fay
Star: Cecily Fay, Michael Collin, Joelle Simpson, Cheryl Burniston

Black Mirror: Metalhead

starstarstarstarhalf
“Run Bella Run”

Black Mirror has consistently been the standard for thought-provoking, usually (although not always) dystopian science-fiction since it first aired in 2011. The latest season, the fourth, premiered on Netflix just before Christmas, and the fifth episode falls squarely into our wheelhouse. Filmed entirely in black-and-white, it’s set in a post-apocalyptic landscape following some unspecified catastrophe. A group of three people prepare to raid a warehouse in search of supplies – and, in particular, one item. However, their search alerts a security robot, which looks somewhat like a greyhound made of black metal, and makes quick work of two intruders, leaving only Bella (Peake) left to pursue. The robot’s combination of stamina, speed and absolute lethality will require all her human ingenuity, if she’s to escape.

The influences here are numerous. You could start from Terminator crossed with Night of the Living Dead, though there was a 1953 SF story by Arthur Porges called ‘The Ruum’ which was also built around someone pursued through a rural landscape by an unstoppable robotic pursuer. As such, this is always going to be a limited scenario, especially when there’s only person on the other side. It was probably wise for the makers to keep this at a crisp 41 minutes; the other entries in the season run as long as 76 minutes. However, I still had a feeling they left food on the table, storywise: this was especially true at the ending, where the strength of character Bella had shown to that point, apparently deserts her entirely. It seemed to me she still should have had fuel left in her tank, and this made for a disappointing conclusion.

Until then, however, it was a very well-constructed thrill-ride, with Bella using her smarts to deal with everything her dogged (hohoho!) adversary can throw at her. The balance ebbs and flows between the two, as human and robot tussle across the battlefield, both using what they can find along the way to help themselves. [Sideline: why is it, whenever anyone picks up a knife in a kitchen to use as a weapon, it is always the Psycho knife?] Especially in the latter stages, when the setting moves from the countryside to inside a house, it almost seems to nudge over into slasher film territory, with Bella as the “final girl” – albeit one rather more mature than the usual, teen-aged inhabitants of that trope.

Like the best dystopias, there’s more than an element of plausibility here, with the robot’s shape and movements inspired by the (somewhat creepy) products already being put out by Boston Dynamics. It’s also more straightforward than many Black Mirror episodes: creator Charlie Booker specializes in the final “gotcha”, a twist that radically re-defines what has gone before. Here, this is limited to a last shot in which the viewer discovers the purpose of the raid on the warehouse, and it’s more poignant than upending. It may not be one of the most memorable Mirror stories, which stick in the mind long after it has finished. Yet it’s an efficient and lean effort, capable of standing alongside any other episode.

Dir: David Slade
Star: Maxine Peake

626 Evolution

starstar
“The voice-overs in my head are urging me to kill this.”

Rarely, if ever, have I seen a film so thoroughly derailed by one bad decision. There’s potential here, and those involved have some decent track records as well. Director Lyde did the last two installments of the Mythica saga, including the best one, Mythica: The Iron Crown, which was far more fun than it should have been. Chuchran, similarly, proved eminently worth watching in Survivor, also directed by Lyde, so I was hopeful the combination of the two would strike further pay-dirt with this collaboration.

There are two heroines here, both of whom are young women, and who possess psychic abilities including telekinesis. The younger one, known as 449 (Jones), due to the tattoo on the back of her neck, is a foster kid in an abusive home, who doesn’t have much better luck with life at school. After thinking she has killed her foster father, she runs off, but is fortunate enough to bump into 626 (Chuchran), who is similarly blessed/cursed with mental talents. Recognizing a psychic sister, she takes 449 under her wing. But it soon transpires, that both women are being tracked by the shadowy scientific research company behind them both, and who are far from willing to let their assets escape. Rather than running, 626 opts to head into the lion’s den, and find out the truth about their murky past.

The approach taken is heavy on the found footage, with a lot of material which is supposed to be taken from security cameras, drones, etc. as well as the cameras with which both subjects have unknowingly been implanted. If you’ve got a high tolerance for first-person POV, this aspect doesn’t work badly, and is an interesting commentary on our modern “surveillance society,” where just about everyone is being watched, all the time. Chuchran also carries her scenes more than adequately, right from the first time we see her, engaging in a brawl in a car-park. She knows her way around a fight scene, and I’m going to keep following her progress. The visual effects depicting the powers are lightly used but effective enough – as much to enhance scenes, as carry them entirely.

Then we get to the mistake. For some, inexplicable reason, the film adds a narration – I’m presuming by Jones – which is just horrendous. It’s entirely superfluous, never adding anything of note: it’s less an internal monologue, than a sub-MST3K wannabe. Imagine being trapped in a cinema, next to a precocious 12-year-old hyped out of her little mind on sugary treats, who insists on providing a running commentary to the film. That’s about what you get here, though it’s likely even worse in the execution than your imagination. I have no clue why anyone ever thought this might enhance proceedings, because they were wildly incorrect. It takes what could have been a decent slice of small-scale paranoia, and turns it into something which occasionally becomes nigh-on unwatchable. Pity, really.

Dir: John Lyde
Star: Danielle Chuchran, Ruby Jones,

Sorcery and Science, by Ella Summers

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

The blurb for this one reads, “Terra Cross is just your typical paranormal princess. She plays poker with goblins and leprechauns. She savors her morning muffin from the Pacific Sunrise Bakery in suburban California. She solves galactic crime cases. And on a particularly wild day, she can even see into the future.” It is somewhat inaccurate, at least as far as this novel goes. I don’t recall any poker at all, muffins appear once, and as for the crime-solving… Well, sorta but not really. There is, however, likely good reason, since the novel is a prequel to Summers’s “Sorcery and Science” series, in which I presume Terra does more of the above.

This is both a blessing and a curse. It allows this book to stand on its own: you reach the end, and there’s a fairly well-defined line drawn beneath the fates of most characters. On the other hand, it does require a clunky jump in the epilogue to tie into the body of the series. Not much more than, “we moved to the other end of the galaxy and started a private-eye business.” Wait, what? It almost works better if you skip that, and treat it as the first volume in its own, standalone series. The paranormal princess aspect makes more sense this way, in a universe where advanced technology and magic co-exist, and Earth is being carefully blocked from knowledge of both. Vampires, witches, elves, etc. all have their own realms, making varying use of the “sorcery and science” from the title.

Cross is the daughter of the mage’s king, but likes to sneak off on adventures with her best friend and mage enforcer, Jason. However, they bite off more than they can chew when chasing after a renegade scientist-wizard, Vib. He is creating an advanced breed of super-mages, with multiple, shared talents instead of the standard limit of one type of magic per person. Needless to say, this research – despite being way beyond the pale – is of great interest to the competing races. Terra and Jason find themselves not just fending off Vib’s creations; they also becomes pawns in the political battle for dominance between the various forces that seek to control the galaxy.

I generally enjoyed this, once I got past Summers’s fondness for prose which tends toward the over-descriptive, it seems especially when it comes to colours, for some reason. The world she crafts is quite an interesting one, and the techno-pagan blend of SF and fantasy is intriguing. While Jason is the more action-minded of the duo, Terra becomes more active later on, especially after taking one of Vib’s experimental concoctions, out of desperation. It allows her to use some of Jason’s talents, which are significant;y more combat-oriented than her precognitive ones. 

The sudden right turn at the end, to tie it into the main body of the series, leaves me uncertain whether I would want to continue, since it appears potentially rather different in tone. Not least, I get the horrible feeling there’s going to be one of “those” love triangles, putting the heroine between Jason and the dark, brooding vampire commander she encounters. Fortunately, that was only hinted at in the prequel, and what’s here was, overall, pleasant enough.

Author: Ella Summers
Publisher: Currently only available as part of the Dominion Rising collection for Kindle.

Monolith

starstar
“Here in my car, I feel safest of all…”

As a joke I saw on Facebook went, “With all these self-driving cars, it won’t be long before there’s a country song about your truck leaving you.” The rise of smart vehicles is inevitable, and likely, so are other films like this, which falls somewhere between Christine and 2001. In this case, mother Sandra (Bowden) is driving to see her husband, whom she suspects of cheating on her, with their young child David (played by the two Hodges brothers, whom I’m assuming are twins!) in the back seat. Her car is the state-of-the-art Monolith, equipped with every safety feature imaginable, and then some. But a series of events – a diversion, an encounter with roadkill on the hoof, and Sandra giving David her smartphone as a distraction – lead to a tricky situation. She is stuck on a remote desert road, outside of a car that has now entered its impenetrable “vault mode”, with David trapped in its interior.

It’s not necessarily a bad idea, with the Monolith (voiced by Lang) having a personality that’s somewhere between Siri and GLaDOS from the Portal games. But there are quite a few problems with the execution. Once Sandra is locked out, it’s less “Man vs. Wild” and more “Woman vs. Brick,” as the car is simply sitting there. It isn’t particularly exciting, which is why the script tries to inject various exterior threats, most obviously a feral canine attracted by the roadkill. Though it’s kinda hard to care much, given the heroine’s situation is largely the result of her own poor decisions. I mean, for heavens’ sake, what kind of mother chooses to light up a cigarette, while in the car with her asthmatic child? At that point, being raised by the feral canine and its pack, is probably the kid’s best hope. And don’t even get me started on the finale, which takes ludicrous to a whole new level. [It turns out this car truly is completely indestructible]

There are a few subplots which don’t particularly go anywhere: the whole “husband affair” thing, for example. Or the fact that Sandra used to be the lead singer for a pop group, which seems to be there purely for vaguely regretful thoughts about having settled down to start a family. Neither it, nor the fans she runs into at a gas-station, serve any purpose once we get to the meat of the story. On the plus side, the film looks great, with Utah’s wilderness providing a wonderfully scenic backdrop, and Bowden isn’t bad, as a woman clearly out of her depth and forced to desperate lengths to try and rescue her child. However, the script is at least two rewrites from reaching a point, where the makers should have looked at it and decided to abandon the resulting project altogether as poorly conceived. For in its current in-car-nation (hohoho), there isn’t enough meat on its bones to make it through the road-trip.

Dir: Ivan Silvestrini
Star: Katrina Bowden, Krew + Nixon Hodges, Katherine Kelly Lang

Rogue Warrior: Robot Fighter

starstar
Barb Wire… In space!”

Actually, if only this had been that, it would likely have been a great deal more entertaining. The most obvious point of comparison is lead Birdsall: as the poster on the right shows, she bears more than a passing resemblance to Pamela Anderson. The setting is also dystopian SF, though even more so than in Barb Wire. This takes place after a decade-long apocalypse, which pitted mankind against the artificial intelligences we had created, they having decided we were more a problem than a solution [coughSkynetcough] What remains of the human race, is now struggling to survive in the blasted landscape which remains.

Among them is Sienna (Birdsall), who hears of a planet which contains weapons that can fry the AI circuits, before they can carry out their nefarious plan to download all of humanity’s consciousness into the Matrix. She puts together a plucky team of stock cliches – the geek (McGrath), the muscle-bound fighter (Crawford, clearly the low-rent Vin Diesel. Seriously, he used to be on the British version of Gladiators, and his character was literally called “Diesel”), the robot with a line of snappy repartee – and flies off in a spaceship to find the bombs which are humanity’s last chance. On the way, they meet up with another robot – this one a pleasure model (Park) – and learn some rather disturbing revelations about Sienna’s own past [coughTyrellCorporationcough].

These revelations do, admittedly, explain her stylistic choices – and, cynics might suggest, her approach to acting. In between a fair amount of futuristic chit-chat of varying interest value, there’s a lot of running around deserts, pretending to fire laser weapons at robotic enemies that, very obviously, aren’t there at all. The physical look of the film isn’t actually too bad; the cinematography has a fairly epic scope to it. The main problem from a visual standpoint, is the CGI has been meshed very badly with the real footage: you never escape the knowledge that the former has been pasted on top of the latter. If your script is going to span the galaxy and feature multiple human vs. robot confrontations, you need to be able to deliver. It has been twenty years since Starship Troopers came out, and its CGI still kicks this film’s ass from here to Klendathu.

While not entirely devoid of pleasures, the ones to be found here are mostly minor. Birdsall does actually have some screen presence, and certainly looks the part, in a Barbarella-esque kind of way. There’s a nice scene at the beginning, where she’s trying to escape in a car which has an auto-pilot, and it refuses to leave until it has gone through its entire checklist of new driver items. That kind of self-effacing humour is something the film needed in greater quantities, and would have helped defray the woeful inadequacy of the technical elements, for wit is cheap. Though on the evidence of this, not as cheap as the visual effects software used here. If that isn’t good enough to let the audience take your film seriously, you probably shouldn’t either.

Dir: Neil Johnson
Star: Tracey Birdsall, Tim McGrath, Daz Crawford, Ashley Park

The Dominion Rising collection

I am a sucker for bulk-buying. Regular readers will know this, since one of the first things reviewed here was the Women Who Kick Butt DVD box-set, which was a mixed bag, to say the least. But it did introduce me to Sister Street Fighter, so I consider the effort well-spent. So when an offer popped up on my Kindle app, giving me the chance to purchase no less than twenty-three novels for the low, low pre-purchase price of 99 cents, it didn’t take me long to click on ‘Buy Now’.

Kinda regretting that decision. Not due to quality (at least, not so far), and not due to a lack of action heroine content. It’s just that there is an insane amount of content in the Dominion Rising collection. Amazon lists it at 5,563 pages, which at my low rate of reading (it’s a good day if I get 25 minutes in) is probably close to a year before it’d be finished. Rather than waiting for that, I’ve opted to review the individual items as I finish them – as long as they meet the usual site criteria, and I can find some kind of artwork with which to illustrate the piece. They’ll appear both as stand-alone reviews, and below.

One thing I am noticing already – and it’s rather annoying – is the tendency for the stories here to be incomplete, frequently ending on cliff-hangers, rather than offering a fully-formed and finished tale. It may seem churlish to complain, when I paid less than a nickel per book. But the discount box-sets of DVDs that I’ve bought, don’t cut off the movies after 60 minutes, and then require you to buy the last reel at a higher price. Even if I’m somewhat enjoying a story, an abrupt ending followed by an exhortation to buy volume two, is not likely to have the desired impact. Finish off telling a good story, and the odds of me buying more from you are significantly better.

Below, find the full list of contents, which will (eventually!) be read in order – titles struck through are ones that didn’t qualify for the site, and will be skipped.

  • Reign of Steel and Bone by Erin St Pierre and Gwynn White
  • Mind Raider by S.M. Blooding & P.K. Tyler
  • Sorcery & Science by Ella Summers
  • Spectral Shift by Daniel Arthur Smith
  • Petra: Immortal Codex, Book 1 by Cheri Lasota
  • Infinite Waste by Dean F. Wilson
  • Girard The Guardian by Ann Christy
  • Flicker by Rebecca Rode
  • Star Compass by Anthea Sharp
  • Vengeance: Warships of the Spire by S. M. Schmitz & Lisa Blackwood
  • Touching Infinity by Erin Hayes
  • Death Plague by K. J. Colt
  • Curiouser and Curiouser by Melanie Karsak
  • Ultras by Timothy C. Ward
  • Maze: The Waking of Grey Grimm by Tony Bertauski
  • Blood for Stone by Logan T. Snyder
  • The Incurables by Felix R. Savage
  • Ferromancer by Becca Andre
  • The Other by Marilyn Peake
  • New York by J.C. Andrijeski
  • Rift Cursed by Margo Bond Collins
  • The Zoo at the End of the World by Samuel Peralta
  • Iron Tamer by Tom Shutt (incomplete)

Authors: Various
Publisher: Pronoun, though the collection appears to be no longer available through Amazon as an e-book. Some entries may also be available individually, as noted in their entries below.

Reign of Bone and Steel by Erin St Pierre and Gwynn White

Share on Facebook0Pin on Pinterest0Share on Reddit0Tweet about this on Twitter

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2actionhalf

This certainly doesn’t waste any time, starting in the middle of a brutal pitched battle between the kingdom of Yatres, and their mortal enemies, the Nyhans. Among the Fae – basically, elves – in the former army is the warrior Caeda, and it’s her side that emerges victorious. But the price paid by the fallen on both sides is an ugly one. Their souls are absorbed through a magical sword, wielded by the Fae known as the Soul-Reaper, and fed to an artifact called the Bone. The trinity of Bone, sword and Reaper have helped sustain Yatres’s power down the centuries.

But while the nation is celebrating its victory, the Soul-Reaper is killed and the Bone stolen. Worst of all, for Caeda, the sword – which is intelligent, telepathic and very chatty – chooses her as the new Soul-Reaper. Caeda and her new pointy pal have to figure out who was responsible, before the power in the Bone can be wielded by the state’s enemies. Yet the more she interacts with the sword, the more she realizes that the soul energy powering Yatres is morally indefensible. Caeda comes to realize, the only legitimate thing she can do, is ensure the Bone is not returned to the service of her king either.

It’s an unusual mix of fantasy and whodunnit, with no small helping of romance. Caeda falls for Dominik, the scion of a the King’s closest advisor (who may, or may not, be involved in the Bone theft); unfortunate, since he is already engaged to be married to the Princess Taliesin. To be honest – and, let’s face it, as usual – this is likely the weakest element in my eyes. The heroine is a supposedly kick-ass warrioress, and certainly proves capable on that front, when necessary: in a world ripe with magic, it’s a nice touch that she doesn’t have any such skills. Given her apparent self-reliance, the speed with which Caeda melts into making moist, googly eyes at Dominik is almost embarrassing. The book also ends painfully abruptly, as if the authors had reached a predetermined word-count, though this is more likely a misguided effort to flog volume two.

It’s a shame, as this wasn’t bad until the cliffhanger which serves no purpose other than commercial. Pierre and White do a nice job of world-building, and the borderline insanity of the intelligent sword, a result of the unfortunate circumstances surrounding its creation, was particularly effective. Imagine having Gollum inside your head 24/7, and you’ll understand why the usual fate of Soul-Reapers involves being driven to insanity. Indeed, there’s a little from Lord of the Rings in the overall concept, with the hero(ine) seeking to destroy a powerful device which could be used for evil. However, the undercover nature of Caeda’s mission, which she can only share with a trusted few, is a good twist, and there’s enough fresh here to make for an enjoyable read.

Author: Erin St Pierre and Gwynn White
Publisher: CreateSpace, available through Amazon as a printed book. It also forms part of the Dominion Rising collection for Kindle.

Mind Raider by S.M. Blooding & P.K. Tyler

Share on Facebook0Pin on Pinterest0Share on Reddit0Tweet about this on Twitter

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

I’m not sure if the problems here are a result of there being two authors credited on this story. It could certainly explain them. For rather than providing a single coherent vision, this feels like both its universe and characters are being pulled in too many different directions. It’s overstuffed with ideas and, instead of them being developed fully, scurries from one to the next, as if the writers were competing to have the final word. This comes to an end in a rather ludicrous finale. There, the entire plot takes a right turn, with the biological weapon which has formed much of the early focus all but discarded.

The heroine is Keva Duste, an “engineered human,” who was originally pod-grown for use as a super soldier. However, she proved able to over-ride her programming so was discarded after refusing an order. And by “discarded”, I mean tossed into space. From there, she was fortuitously rescued, and began a new life as an agent working for the Syndicate. This is one of a number of murky groups, including the Elite and the Families, who are waging a proxy war for power around the network of planets and space stations which are the setting here. None of them seem to have the population’s interests at heart.

She’s sent undercover to an Elite planet, to find out information about the bio-weapon mentioned, which will shortly be tested on an unsuspecting batch of subjects. However, troubled by an increasing moral compass, she goes off-mission and also rescues Dothylian, the new wife of the not very nice Elite (to put it mildly) on whom Keva is spying. This causes problems all its own, partly because of Dot not being fit for the harsh world of the “Black”, where Keva operates. And partly due to the increasingly self-aware AI she brings with her, which has an agenda of its own.

I found it all kinda annoying. Ideas and concepts like the “slip drive” are hurled at the reader, without adequate explanation, and the focus bounces around, to diminishing effect. There is some a bit of decent tension built up when Keva is on the Elite planet, because her undercover identity is that of a dead woman. Anyone who knows that will be understandably surprised to see the corpse walking around, so it’s a very risky situation. For a genetically-engineered super-soldier though, especially one with a permanent connection to a high-powered AI in her head, she doesn’t seem to make much use of her talents. There’s rather more of Keva moping around her spaceship, and unresolved sexual tension with Captain Hale.

From reading interviews with the authors, it appears one wrote and the other edited, so my theory about competing pages doesn’t seem to be valid (much though it’d explain the deficiencies). I’ll split the blame here, with perhaps a little more going to the editor, Tyler. She should perhaps have spotted and corrected the structural issues that rendered this more chore than pleasure at about the half-way point, and turned into a real slog in the final stretch.

Authors: S.M. Blooding & P.K. Tyler
Publisher: Macmillan, available through Amazon as an e-book only. It also forms part of the Dominion Rising collection for Kindle.

Sorcery and Science, by Ella Summers

Share on Facebook0Pin on Pinterest0Share on Reddit0Tweet about this on Twitter

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

The blurb for this one reads, “Terra Cross is just your typical paranormal princess. She plays poker with goblins and leprechauns. She savors her morning muffin from the Pacific Sunrise Bakery in suburban California. She solves galactic crime cases. And on a particularly wild day, she can even see into the future.” It is somewhat inaccurate, at least as far as this novel goes. I don’t recall any poker at all, muffins appear once, and as for the crime-solving… Well, sorta but not really. There is, however, likely good reason, since the novel is a prequel to Summers’s “Sorcery and Science” series, in which I presume Terra does more of the above.

This is both a blessing and a curse. It allows this book to stand on its own: you reach the end, and there’s a fairly well-defined line drawn beneath the fates of most characters. On the other hand, it does require a clunky jump in the epilogue to tie into the body of the series. Not much more than, “we moved to the other end of the galaxy and started a private-eye business.” Wait, what? It almost works better if you skip that, and treat it as the first volume in its own, standalone series. The paranormal princess aspect makes more sense this way, in a universe where advanced technology and magic co-exist, and Earth is being carefully blocked from knowledge of both. Vampires, witches, elves, etc. all have their own realms, making varying use of the “sorcery and science” from the title.

Cross is the daughter of the mage’s king, but likes to sneak off on adventures with her best friend and mage enforcer, Jason. However, they bite off more than they can chew when chasing after a renegade scientist-wizard, Vib. He is creating an advanced breed of super-mages, with multiple, shared talents instead of the standard limit of one type of magic per person. Needless to say, this research – despite being way beyond the pale – is of great interest to the competing races. Terra and Jason find themselves not just fending off Vib’s creations; they also becomes pawns in the political battle for dominance between the various forces that seek to control the galaxy.

I generally enjoyed this, once I got past Summers’s fondness for prose which tends toward the over-descriptive, it seems especially when it comes to colours, for some reason. The world she crafts is quite an interesting one, and the techno-pagan blend of SF and fantasy is intriguing. While Jason is the more action-minded of the duo, Terra becomes more active later on, especially after taking one of Vib’s experimental concoctions, out of desperation. It allows her to use some of Jason’s talents, which are significant;y more combat-oriented than her precognitive ones. 

The sudden right turn at the end, to tie it into the main body of the series, leaves me uncertain whether I would want to continue, since it appears potentially rather different in tone. Not least, I get the horrible feeling there’s going to be one of “those” love triangles, putting the heroine between Jason and the dark, brooding vampire commander she encounters. Fortunately, that was only hinted at in the prequel, and what’s here was, overall, pleasant enough.

Author: Ella Summers
Publisher: Currently only available as part of the Dominion Rising collection for Kindle.

Mind Raider by S.M. Blooding & P.K. Tyler

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

I’m not sure if the problems here are a result of there being two authors credited on this story. It could certainly explain them. For rather than providing a single coherent vision, this feels like both its universe and characters are being pulled in too many different directions. It’s overstuffed with ideas and, instead of them being developed fully, scurries from one to the next, as if the writers were competing to have the final word. This comes to an end in a rather ludicrous finale. There, the entire plot takes a right turn, with the biological weapon which has formed much of the early focus all but discarded.

The heroine is Keva Duste, an “engineered human,” who was originally pod-grown for use as a super soldier. However, she proved able to over-ride her programming so was discarded after refusing an order. And by “discarded”, I mean tossed into space. From there, she was fortuitously rescued, and began a new life as an agent working for the Syndicate. This is one of a number of murky groups, including the Elite and the Families, who are waging a proxy war for power around the network of planets and space stations which are the setting here. None of them seem to have the population’s interests at heart.

She’s sent undercover to an Elite planet, to find out information about the bio-weapon mentioned, which will shortly be tested on an unsuspecting batch of subjects. However, troubled by an increasing moral compass, she goes off-mission and also rescues Dothylian, the new wife of the not very nice Elite (to put it mildly) on whom Keva is spying. This causes problems all its own, partly because of Dot not being fit for the harsh world of the “Black”, where Keva operates. And partly due to the increasingly self-aware AI she brings with her, which has an agenda of its own.

I found it all kinda annoying. Ideas and concepts like the “slip drive” are hurled at the reader, without adequate explanation, and the focus bounces around, to diminishing effect. There is some a bit of decent tension built up when Keva is on the Elite planet, because her undercover identity is that of a dead woman. Anyone who knows that will be understandably surprised to see the corpse walking around, so it’s a very risky situation. For a genetically-engineered super-soldier though, especially one with a permanent connection to a high-powered AI in her head, she doesn’t seem to make much use of her talents. There’s rather more of Keva moping around her spaceship, and unresolved sexual tension with Captain Hale.

From reading interviews with the authors, it appears one wrote and the other edited, so my theory about competing pages doesn’t seem to be valid (much though it’d explain the deficiencies). I’ll split the blame here, with perhaps a little more going to the editor, Tyler. She should perhaps have spotted and corrected the structural issues that rendered this more chore than pleasure at about the half-way point, and turned into a real slog in the final stretch.

Authors: S.M. Blooding & P.K. Tyler
Publisher: Macmillan, available through Amazon as an e-book only. It also forms part of the Dominion Rising collection for Kindle.

What Happened to Monday

starstarstarstarhalf
“Seven Noomis for the price of one!”

In the future, overpopulation becomes such a problem that strict limits are placed on children per family. You are only allowed one, with any others being taken by the authorities and put into “cryosleep”, so they will no longer consume resources until the situation has been addressed. After a woman secretly gives birth to septuplets, their grandfather, Terrence Settman (Dafoe), brings them up, rigidly schooling their actions so they remain under the radar. Each gets to go out on the day of the week corresponding to their name e.g. Monday on Monday, etc. On their return, they share with their siblings the events of the day, so the illusion can be sustained. 30 years later, with their grandfather gone, the seven women have evaded capture, though tensions between the different personalities are growing. Then, one evening, Monday simply doesn’t come back. The following day, neither does Tuesday. The remaining sisters have to try and figure out what’s going on, without exposing themselves.

There are strong hints of Orphan Black here, the TV series in which Tatiana Maslany played multiple clones, with distinct personalities, who end up working together to uncover a conspiracy. That ran for five seasons, truly flogging a dead horse into the ground, and the concept works a good deal better at the two hours for which this runs. Though even here, the third quarter does somewhat run out of steam. The main pleasure is the seven different versions of Rapace – and, indeed, the seven mini versions seen in flashblack, played by Read. Watching them bickering around the dinner table is a marvel on both technical and acting levels. Despite limited screen time, Rapace imbues them with distinguishing characteristics that mean you can tell the players without a scorecard. Though, again, the third quarter gets rather murky in this area, especially when two versions start rolling around, brawling with each other.

Wirkola is best known for Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (a film which, like the Resident Evil series, performed much better overseas), and has a similarly stylish grasp of the action here. Though not all the seven sisters are action-oriented, some of them most definitely are. The highlights are a chase through the streets of the city, and a misguided attempt by the authorities to storm the apartment where the sisters are embedded. It does not go well. These sequences likely work rather better than the plot. As well as my doubts a subterfuge like this could be sustained for three decades, despite Settman’s undeniable commitment to it, I must confess I’m with Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close), head of the Child Allocation Bureau. She points out the grandfather’s actions are thoroughly selfish: he feels that rules for the necessary good of all, should only apply to other people, not his descendants. The story likely also needs a better antagonist: someone against whom the Noomis can directly battle. Cayman is largely absent and operating at just too much of a distance to qualify.

There’s still more than enough here to appreciate, with a well-crafted dystopian world which seems not implausible – see China’s “one child policy,” for instance. But it’s really Rapace’s show, and the actress builds on the intensity shown in the Millennium Trilogy. She seems to have both a fondness and a talent for action: Noomi likely has as good a claim to being the current Queen of European Action Heroines as anyone.

Dir: Tommy Wirkola
Star: Noomi Rapace, Clara Read, Marwan Kenzari, Willem Dafoe

Tag

starstarstarstar
“Virtually game for anything.”

A bus full of Japanese schoolgirls includes the quiet, poetry-writing Mitsuko (Triendl), who drops her pen. Bending down to pick it up, she thus survives the lethal gust of wind which neatly bisects, not only the bus, but the rest of her classmates. Ok, film: safe to say, you have acquired our attention. [Not for the first time the director has managed this: the opening scene of his Suicide Circle is one we still vividly remember, 15 years later]

What follows is an extremely hyper-violent gallop through a series of scenarios, with Mitsuko and her friends becoming the target for assaults by everyone from teachers to bridesmaids. Can she figure out what the hell is going on, with matters not helped by her apparent amnesia, with no memory of everything prior to the bus? And, more importantly, is the film going to be able to deliver any kind of rational explanation for this?

The further this went on, the less convinced this would be possible. However, I have to say, it ends up making far more sense than I expected. It even explains things as disparate as the fairly lecherous costume choices (the schoolgirls’ skirts are more like broad belts, and frequently fly up in anything more than a light breeze) as well as the extremely drone-heavy cinematography. On reaching the end, I immediately wanted to watch this all over again, armed with the provided explanation, and see what other clues I had missed.

There’s a lot to admire here: it plays almost like a cross between Sucker Punch and Run Lola Run, combining the slick visuals and “anything can happen” mentality of the former (and has been similarly condemned), with the latter’s… Well, mostly its running. Seriously, Triendl (who is Austrian-born, hence her non-Japanese surname) racks up as many miles in this 85 minutes as an entire series of Doctor Who companions. But not just her, because even more confusingly, her character is played by multiple different actresses across the various scenarios.

Interestingly, until the very end, there are almost no men in the movie at all, save the pig-headed bridegroom, to who our heroine will be wed. Perhaps that’s a clue in itself to the nature of the multi-verses around which Mitsuko finds herself bouncing. It’s fascinating to watch everything unravel, and the lead actresses do very well, in a role or roles that could have been little more than a place-holder. Watch the emotions flickering across Triendl’s face, for instance, as she tries the virtually impossible task of explaining to one of her friends what she has gone through.

There’s no denying the strongly feminist subtext here, providing you can look past the chauvinist trappings and arterial spray. Sono is both embracing and critiquing the exploitation world in which he has largely operated, although does so with a light enough touch, you can simply enjoy it as a blood-drenched action film, rather than having to worry about its philosophy. And the less you know about it going in, perhaps the better.

Dir: Sion Sono
Star: Reina Triendl, Mariko Shinoda, Erina Mano, Yuki Sakurai